Forbidden Stories: Deadly border where journalists go missing

On March 26, 2018, a journalist and a photographer from Ecuador as well as their driver were kidnapped by former FARC guerillas on the border with Colombia while they were working on a story about drug-trafficking. They were found dead three months later. A group of nineteen Ecuadorian and Colombian journalists, in partnership with the organization “Forbidden Stories”, carried out an investigation into the death of their colleagues. Today, and 15 other international media are publishing the outcome of this investigation.

A name delicately handwritten in a hotel register: Javier Ortega. Occupation: journalist. This is the last proof of life left by the 32 years old Ecuadorian reporter of the daily El Comercio, on Monday, March 26, 2018. At 7:10am, he appears on surveillance videos as he leaves hotel El Pedregal, in northwestern Ecuador, accompanied by the photographer Paúl Rivas, 45 years old, and their driver Efraín Segarra, 60 years old. They are heading to Mataje, the last village before the Colombian border.

Their bullet-riddled bodies are found only three months later by the Colombian Special Forces, dozens of kilometers away, in the region of Nariño where numerous groups of narco-traffickers operate. Their murderers dug two graves, which they booby-trapped using five antipersonnel landmines, intended for causing damage when soldiers came to recover the bodies. It was the final episode of a tragedy that devastated Ecuadorian society. On social media, in the streets of Quito the capital, on the windshields of cars, the slogan #nosfaltan3 [#wearemissing3] spread. Never had a journalist been kidnapped and murdered in Ecuador before.

Forbidden story

What happened in the steep jungle that serves as the border between the two countries? A group of Ecuadorian and Colombian independent reporters got together to try to respond to this question. For security reasons, they worked under cover of anonymity. The organization Forbidden Stories, devoted to continuing and completing the work of threatened, jailed, or murdered journalists, joined their investigation to understand what happened after Javier Ortega and his two colleagues disappeared on the morning of Monday, March 26…

“I said to Paúl: ‘don’t go this time, please! I think it’s too dangerous,’” remembers Yadira Aguagallo, photographer Paúl Rivas’s companion. It was the third time since the beginning of the year that he was going to the border area for a story. Six days earlier, three soldiers had been killed and one injured in a home-made bomb blast in Mataje. This was the latest jolt in a wave of violence that had been rattling the province of Esmeraldas, on the border with Colombia, in the past several months. The authorities blamed one man for this series of attacks: Walther Patricio Arizala Vernaza, a.k.a. “El Guacho”. Only 28 years old and unknown to the authorities until a few months before, he quickly became public enemy number 1. This former FARC guerilla is believed to be the leader of a group of 120 armed men: the Oliver Sinisterra Front.

Ecuador, key transit point for exporting cocaine to the world

Since the peace accord signed in November 2016 between the Colombian government and FARC around 1800 guerillas dissented and created a dozen armed groups. They are accused of working hand in hand with Mexican drug cartels. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, coca production flourished in Colombia in 2016, particularly in the Nariño region where these groups operate. 42 627 hectares were said to be cultivated, a 43 per cent increase from 2015. “Once coca leaves are transformed into cocaine in Colombia, the drugs are smuggled to Ecuador via sea or land, where they are stored and then transported to Central America, Mexico or the United States” explains Christian Rivadeneira, prosecutor in the province of Esmeraldas. “Why is this a taboo subject in Ecuador?” asks Colonel Mario Pazmiño, former director of the Ecuadorian Military Intelligence Services between 2007 and 2008. “Because it shows to the national and international public that this border is out of control.”

It is to report on the consequences of this drug war that Javier Ortega and his two colleagues go to the border village of Mataje on March 26. The particularly dangerous zone is known to be in the hands of El Guacho’s men. At 9:30am, according to the Ecuadorian interior ministry’s investigation report, they cross the last military barricade situated a few kilometers from the village. This is where we lose track of them, until the 3rd of April. A video, aired by the Colombian TV channel RCN, shows the journalists in chains, their faces distraught. Javier Ortega calls out to the Ecuadorian president Lenín Moreno: “Our lives are in your hands.” The journalist relays the demands of their abductors: the release of three drug-traffickers jailed in Ecuador.  At the end of the video, he confirms what everyone feared, they were kidnapped by El Guacho’s group.

They asked some children where the bridge was that led to Colombia. And then, they disappeared.”

It is our turn to go there, with the army, on  August 2. Two cracked asphalt roads, houses made of cinder blocks, children playing in their school uniforms, and a few hundred meters away, on the other side of the river that marks the border, coca fields. Here, soldiers make their daily rounds in armored vehicles, but there is no permanent control of the bridge that leads to Colombia, which leaves the way open to narco-traffickers. In the middle of this village abandoned by the authorities, a brand-new building stands out. “It’s the house of El Guacho’s mother,” explains Colonel Rodriguez who is accompanying us. The journalists’ car was found a few dozen meters away.

“The house is empty, but reportedly El Guacho passes by regularly,” he continues. We are not allowed to get out of the vehicle to speak with the inhabitants. A few minutes later, speakers start playing reggae music all around the village. A signal sent to the other side of the border to let them know about our presence.

One person accepted to speak to us about what happened in Mataje the day of the kidnapping. Victor Hugo Guerrero Quiñónez taught at the primary school in Mataje for two years until he had to quit his job during the wave of attacks. He collected eyewitness accounts from his former students and colleagues. “They parked their car and attempted to ask some questions to the inhabitants,” he says. “But people don’t like to talk around here, it’s the code of silence. They asked some children where the bridge was that led to Colombia. The children told them, and then, they disappeared.”

What exactly happened to Javier Ortega and his two colleagues? Questioned on the July 19, during a press conference, defense minister Oswaldo Jarrín denied that the journalists were kidnapped on Ecuadorian soil. “They want to put the blame on the Colombian state,” objects Cristian Segarra, the son of Efraín Segarra, the driver. For months now, families of the victims have been taking turns to denounce to the media the amateurism of the government of Quito, which they hold responsible for the death of their loved ones.

WhatsApp conversations between El Guacho and a high-ranking Ecuadorian police officer, handed over to the courts, suggest that the authorities were aware of the increasingly pressing danger to civilians. On March 16, 2018, 10 days before the kidnapping, El Guacho writes: “If we catch any civilians on the border, we’ll kill them.” “Just a few hours before Javier and his team entered Mataje, access was forbidden to journalists,” explains Geovanny Tipanhuisa, editor-in-chief at El Comercio.

“Yet they made them sign the register and let them pass. What happened? I still don’t have an answer.” Despite our requests, the government did not respond to our questions. “It annoys them that in Ecuador or in the rest of the world, people will know they made an error,” reckons Galo Ortega, father of the reporter.

Announcement of release

And what if the hostages could have been freed? On March 28, at 9:25pm, El Tiempo, one of the most reputable daily newspapers in Colombia, announces that they were returned in good health to the Ecuadorian authorities.  “Everyone was crying here! It was such an incredible joy!” remembers Geovanny Tipanluisa. According to a judicial source, around 6pm, an order is given to keep a military helicopter ready to receive the hostages. They are then to be taken to the airport in the town of Tachina, Ecuador, where a plane is supposed to transfer them to Quito.

According to our information, the same evening, the Colombian defense minister at the time, Luis Carlos Villegas, apparently called his Ecuadorian counterpart Patricio Zambrano to congratulate him for the release. Interviewed on September 28, Mr. Zambrano, who is no longer minister, confirmed Mr. Villegas’s phone call but denied that a plan to pick up the hostages had been activated. He added: “The only news that we ever had was the El Tiempo article, which was a false information.” What really played out on that evening of March 28? “This is one of the biggest questions I have today,” Cristian Segarra says, the son of the driver “I think it will stay that way all my life”.

On April 11, the Oliver Sinisterra Front issued a press statement announcing the assassination of the three employees of El Comercio. Several people close to El Guacho were arrested and indicted in Colombia, but he remains at large. The manhunt underway to catch him keeps the two countries on their toes. “It hurts me to think that there had to be a kidnapping and a murder for them to start caring about what is happening at the border,” Yadira Aguagallo decries. “The Colombian and Ecuadorian governments carry a big share of the responsibility in this. The death of Paúl, Javier, and Efraín cannot go unpunished. Justice has not been served at any level. Some silences are unsustainable.”

By Jules Giraudat from Forbidden Stories, for the project “Deadly border”

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